Monthly Archives: December 2015

12 Steps of Christmas | Introduction

Before we begin with Step One and Morning Prayer on Christmas Day, here’s a little background information about the Daily Office, the 12 Steps, and my plan for this series that you may find helpful.

About the Daily Office

From the beginning, Christians, like their Jewish forebears, have prayed at set times of the day. (See Acts 3:1, for example.)

Over the centuries, and especially with the rise of monastic communities, Christians gathered to pray as often as seven times a day (emulating Psalm 119:164).

That sevenfold monastic pattern was simplified during the Reformation, and in the Church of England became two “offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer.

The Roman Catholic Church may refer to these prayers as the Liturgy of the Hours, the Orthodox Churches may refer to them as divine services or divine offices, and the Episcopal Church (to which I belong) refers to them as the Daily Office.

Whatever differences there may be — in number of services, times of the day, selections from Scripture to be read at certain times — there is a basic pattern to the Daily Office that’s pretty common.

The Psalter – Reading from the Psalms has for centuries been the foundation of daily prayer.

In the Episcopal Church, the 150 psalms are read at Morning and Evening Prayer on a seven-week cycle.

The Lessons – Readings from the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament) and from the New Testament are next. In some churches, those readings are relatively short (maybe just a verse or two) and may be called “chapters.”

In the Episcopal Church, we have inherited a tradition of reading a lot of Scripture in the Daily Office. Over the course of two years, we read most of the Old Testament once and the whole New Testament twice.

The schedule of what Psalms and Scripture lessons are to be read on a particular day is called the “lectionary.”

The Prayers – Beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for our own needs and those of others and we give thanks to God for the blessings we enjoy.

In the Episcopal Church, there are special prayers called “collects” that set themes for every Sunday of the year, for days of the week, and for special occasions. At each office, we commonly read two or three of these collects.

About the 12 Steps

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, according to the history timeline on the AA website, date to 1938 and to the early experience of the first members.

They are “a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.”

The 12 Steps were codified from the “Big Book” titled Alcoholics Anonymous, which also includes stories sharing members’ experience, strength, and hope.

You can read the 12 Steps in short form or in the longer form of the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

About this blog

I’ve been praying the Daily Office for about 23 years now, since before my ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and I’ve been writing and teaching about it for many years.

I’ve only been practicing recovery for a little over two years now, since becoming sober in October 2013.

Three things really stand out for me as I compare the two practices:

The first thing that struck me about AA meetings is the regular reading and re-reading of the Big Book and of the “12 and 12.”

This constant return to the basic texts of AA has a lot in common with the practice of the Daily Office.

Year after year, season after season, week after week, “one day at a time,” the words of the basic texts — Bible or Big Book — soak into your imagination, and you begin a process of incorporating their wisdom into your daily living.

The second thing that I discovered is that both AA and the church talk about similar spiritual practices; we just call them by different names. For example, what AA calls a “daily self-inventory” the church calls “Confession of Sin.”

And third, both practices are done not because you feel like it, but because it’s time to do it.

We pray Morning Prayer each day at 6 am because that’s the time to do it; we go to an AA meeting on Friday evenings because that’s the time to do it. We can enjoy a “daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition” (Big Book 85).

The 12 Steps of Christmas

Each day during the 12 Days of Christmas, we will read one of the 12 steps and pray the Daily Office with its psalms and Bible lessons as appointed in the lectionary.

From the resonances between them, perhaps some wisdom will emerge that will help in our “spiritual awakening.”

I look forward to having you join me in the process for the next 12 days, and I invite you to share in the conversation by adding your comments.

Merry Christmas!

12 Steps of Christmas | About

Inspired by the name of an event — “The 12 Steps of Christmas” — that I recently attended at the Solutions Recovery Club in Oshkosh, I will offer reflections on the 12 Steps and the daily office each day of the Christmas season.

I will start with an introductory post on Christmas Eve, December 24, and then posts on Steps 1 through 12 from Christmas Day through the Eve of the Epiphany, January 5.

I’ve been praying the Daily Office — Morning and Evening Prayer — for about 23 years now, but I’ve been practicing recovery for only a little more than two.

Being in recovery has helped me understand what Richard Rohr refers to as “the coded Gospel” of the 12 Steps, and it has revitalized both my prayer practice and my spiritual life.

You don’t have to know anything about the Daily Office or the 12 Steps to join in.

Here are two quick resources that will help you follow along:

Forward Movement offers Daily Prayer Anytime, where you can get the prayers and readings for the Daily Office according to the use of the Episcopal Church (which I serve as an ordained minister).

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are available online as PDF files in short form and in the fuller form of the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.

Please consider joining me in these reflections by offering your own comments as you read each day’s post, and please share this blog with anyone else you think might enjoy this walk through the season.

Ornaments to God our Savior

Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us. Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior. (Titus 2:7-10)

In his 2012 book The Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written, Marcus Borg summarizes current scholarship around New Testament authorship and pulls together a timeline that places each book in historical context.

One of the more dramatic conclusions his work reveals is that the early Christian church became notably less radical even during the 70-year period when the New Testament was being written.

The letter of Titus, from which our Epistle this morning is drawn, dates to about the 110s and is one of the last to be written. Borg writes that “the letter is about the need for order and the appointment of authorized leaders — in short, it is about institutionalization” (583).

Today’s letter seems to be as much about societal approval as God’s approval. That is to say, Christians should behave well so that no one can speak ill of them (and therefore of God).

A drunken spectacle

But look at the first of the women featured in today’s other readings — women who are true “ornaments to the doctrine of God our savior.”

Hannah has prayed that God would grant her a son, despite the disapproval of the Temple priest Eli, who sees her silent prayer as drunken rambling.

Her son Samuel will hear and respond to God’s call, and his first act will be to pronounce God’s displeasure with Eli and his sons — “scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or the duties of the priests to the people” (1 Sam. 2:12-13).

Hannah’s song, which we read this morning, praises God, who “raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor” (1 Sam. 2:8).

Those who recognize their need of a savior are the ornaments God chooses.

An unwed mother

Like Hannah before her, Mary is known in part for the song she sings — the canticle we know as the Magnificat.

She sings of the God who “has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” who “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly” (BCP 91).

Today we read of God’s announcement to Mary, God’s invitation to her, God’s need of her participation in his plan for salvation.

With her response to the angel’s message — “Let it be to me according to your word” — Mary sets in motion the saving work of God, the birth of a son who will turn the Empire and the whole world upside down.

Those who will participate in God’s saving activity are the ornaments God chooses.

A mansion prepared for himself

In these last few days of Advent, we pray to God that “your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself” (BCP 212).

Like a house decorated for Christmas, we can be “ornaments to the doctrine of God our Savior.”

But we shine as we recognize our need of a savior, not as we seek to impress those around us.

We glow when we participate in God’s saving work, not when we win in arguments against our neighbors.

We sparkle when we reflect the Light that is coming into the world to accomplish the work of salvation. We (like John the Baptist) are not the light, but we bear witness to the Light.

This Christmas, may the Light — God’s Son, Jesus Christ — find in each of us a home richly prepared for himself, a fitting ornament to God our savior.

Choose the Kingdom life, you brood of vipers!

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

Look, it’s Gaudete Sunday and we’re lighting a pink candle in the Advent wreath. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

Christmas is just around the corner … but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!

What a downer! C’mon, John  ….

At least John is just a forerunner, announcing the coming of Jesus.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild — infant holy, infant lowly — whom we celebrate at Christmas.

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Yeah, we’ve been hearing from that Jesus all week in the Daily Office readings from Matthew 23.

And you know what? He sounds an awful lot like his cousin John.

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ … You snakes, you brood of vipers! (Matt. 23)

So, yeah, let your gentleness be known to everyone … you brood of vipers!

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I mean, what’s going on here?

What happened to our gentle Lord Jesus?

Well, you see, the Pharisees and the Herodians are plotting together to trap him (Matt. 22:16).

(You remember the Herodians — they follow Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, the guy who had all the babies of Bethlehem killed when Jesus was born. Yeah, that guy.)

The religious and the political powers are converging around Jesus, trying to silence his message, which up until then had been about the kingdom of God, about healing and restoration.

They’ve been badgering him ever since he arrived in Jerusalem on that Sunday, riding on a donkey through the gate of Jerusalem to the shouts of Hosanna from the the palm-waving crowd.

They were probably still upset about the whole tables of the money-changers thing, still smarting from his response about paying taxes, still angry about his undermining their authority and evading their questions.

The chief priests and the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadduccees, the lawyer … push push push!

But Jesus has probably just about had it, too.

He turns to the crowd and delivers his outburst against the Pharisees and scribes — the hypocrites. He goes all John the Baptist on them.

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But that’s not the end of it.

Jesus does not win over the crowds — or the religious leaders — by railing at them.

In fact, he doesn’t win over the crowds at all.

As he leaves the Temple, he tells his disciples a number of parables, then says: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” (Matt. 26:1-5)

It’s hard to tell whether it’s Advent or Lent … whether it’s Christmas or Good Friday.

Christmas is just around the corner, but even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.

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I’m grateful to my Bishop, Matthew Gunter, who offered this brief meditation at a discernment retreat yesterday:

In response to what’s going on in the world around us, all the fear and violence, we can pick up a hammer and nails, or we can pick up a basin and towel.

The hammer and nails speak in the world’s language, the language of power and victory. The hammer pounds with the force of John the Baptist’s conviction, and the nails ring out with Jesus’ piercing clarity as he argues in the Temple.

But the hammer blows ring out against Jesus two days later, and the troublemaker hangs silent, nailed to a tree.

It seems the authorities have won.

But the basin and towel turn everything upside down.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks after the Last Supper is concluded, as he dries his hands on the towel around his waist.

You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you (John 13).

The basin and towel set an example for us of Kingdom living, of a new way of acting in the face of the world’s power and violence.

The basin and towel wash our feet and set them on the way of the cross, which is paradoxically the way of life and peace.

The basin washes us just like Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan washed him.

Jesus, at the very end of his life, shows us how we should live, what we should do.

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“What then should we do?” the crowds asked John the Baptist back at the beginning.

In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)

The Rev. Steve Pankey, on his blog Draughting Theology, writes:

John’s answer is simple. In fact, it is so simple as to be terrifyingly mundane. He doesn’t tell them to fast for 40 days or to move to a cave in the wilderness or to give away everything they own. Instead, he says “share,” “don’t cheat,” and “be satisfied.

Wait… what? Share, don’t cheat, and be satisfied? That’s what Kingdom living looks like? That’s, well, just so easy a child could do it. Which is precisely John’s point.

Kingdom living isn’t difficult, we just choose not to do it, which is why the punishment is so severe.

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Even now the ax is laid at the root of the tree.

So bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Choose the Kingdom life — the basin and towel — instead of the life of power and control that nailed gentle Jesus to the cross on Good Friday.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone … you lovely brood of vipers.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.